What can Philosophy of Religion Offer to the University?


Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org, we are asking philosophers of religion to tell us what philosophy of religion can offer to the modern university, considered either as a whole or through the lens of one or more university disciplines. Our blog is full of fascinating contributions of this kind.

Last year we witnessed a fabulous response to our challenge to look inwards and say what our field is and does, and we’ll soon present our analysis of those creative blog contributions. This year we are looking outwards as well as inwards, asking philosophers of religion to tell us how our field can impact the university or specific university disciplines.

For this theme, as for last year’s theme, we prefer to ask and listen rather than stipulate and define; it’s how we live up to our intention to speak for the entire unruly world of philosophy of religion. Ultimately we hope to analyze the themes in these blog entries and present our findings to you.

So read the blog entries and learn about philosophy of religion in the modern university from the experts who work in the field.

Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Shirong Luo on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Shirong Luo 540x463Shirong Luo is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Simmons College. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

To address the topic of what philosophy of religion offers to the modern university, it is apropos to briefly talk about the aim of the modern university education. There are two views with regard to such an aim: some say that the aim of higher learning is to train specialists such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, nurses, etc., while others hold a more holistic view: the mission of institutions of higher learning is to produce generalists with a broad spectrum of knowledge and skills. Since the title question specifically mentions the modern university, we may justifiably exclude from our discussion vocational schools and colleges that aim to prepare students for highly specialized careers. Therefore, the modern university provides students with knowledge and skills that are broadly applicable. But this does not mean our students don’t have a focus on a specific discipline. They do. That’s what college majors are about. Among a constellation of subject matters and skills, knowledge of and skills in critical thinking stand out as a necessary tool in our students’ intellectual toolkit. Nowadays many, if not all, disciplines claim that they teach students critical thinking skills, but philosophy instructors seem to be in a slightly better position to teach critical thinking in a narrow and technical sense than the rest because after all they are the ones who have gone through a rigorous training in logic. Specifically, philosophy of religion offers the modern university applied critical thinking vis-à-vis religion. I now want to elaborate on this answer.

In my previous blog entry, I defined descriptively philosophy of religion as a subject about the debate on the existence of God and other related issues between theological apologists and their atheistic or agnostic detractors. Philosophy of religion offers the modern university critical thinking about religion because it does analyses and evaluations of the arguments both for and against the existence of God. But the question is: Which side offers better arguments? The answer depends to a large extent on who presents the debate. There is hardly anyone who is absolutely neutral like that proverbial Buridan’s donkey. As an instructor, you may lean toward one side or the other. Just imagine what it would be like if David Hume or Thomas Aquinas taught philosophy of religion today. Even if you want to be even-handed and impartial, as an instructor you may add your own weight, willy-nilly, to the debate, which would undoubtedly influence the learning outcome. On the other hand, the students are not absolutely neutral either. More often than not, they come to the debate not with a tabula rasa. So the outcome is very much dependent on the complex psychological dynamics of the instructor and the student. Nevertheless, philosophy of religion teaches students to think critically about religion. But what does it mean to think critically about religion?

Critical thinking is not a monolithic idea. The ability to think critically may be classified into three levels. At the lowest level, one is able to analyze and evaluate arguments and construct good arguments. Critical thinking about religion at this level enables one to see whether the arguments presented by Anselm, Hume or Paley are good or not. But a better critical thinker is one who is not only able to analyze and evaluate arguments critically but also knows when such cognitive processes are appropriate rather than someone who sees arguments everywhere and itches for a logical analysis. Such a thinker avoids the pitfall that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I would like to illustrate the critical thinker of religion at the elevated level using two examples in the New Testament: Apostles Philip and Thomas. Philip the Apostle pleads with Jesus: “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Clearly he relies on one simple methodology: sight. He seems to think that the ontological status of God the Father is an empirical rather than a conceptual matter: if I can see Him, then I believe; seeing is believing. The request “Show us the Father” cuts through all the conceptual fog and verbal maze and directly to the core of the matter. Thomas the Apostle goes even further. He does not believe in Jesus’ resurrection until he can see the “nail marks in his hands” and “put his hand into his side.” For Thomas, hearsay is out of the question; seeing is not enough; he demands a more rigorous proof–touch. Neither of them seems to think that their request can be appropriately answered by an argument or a conceptual analysis. Though at a higher level, this kind of aptitude, when applied too rigidly, can easily become a conversation stopper. In contrast, the ultimate critical thinker understands that there are things that transcend the value of critical thinking in its technical sense, such as friendship, solidarity, inclusivity, community, humanity, survival, peaceful coexistence, etc. I would count David Hume, among others, as an ultimate critical thinker. He says: “Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy be still a man.” He analyzes the arguments of his opponents and presents his own rebuttals. And his critics in turn do the same. So the debate continues. To conclude, my answer to the question of what philosophy of religion offers to the modern university is thinking critically about religion. I have argued that thinking critically about religion should be understood in a global, strategic and holistic sense rather than merely in its technical sense. Philosophy of religion teaches the modern university students to think about religion critically, and above all to be congenial and civilized cosmopolitans.

Charles Taliaferro on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

CTaliaferro (1)Charles Taliaferro, Chair of the Department of Philosophy, St. Olaf College is the senior co-editor of a six volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Religion involving 200 scholars from around the world for Wiley-Blackwell and Editor-in-Chief of Open Theology. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophical reflection on matters that are religiously significant go back to the earliest recorded philosophy in the west and east.  Philosophy of religion as it emerged in the modern era, beginning in the 17th century, was not a clearly separate sub-field until the twentieth century, but one can see hints of it in the German University system with the separation of theological and philosophical faculty.  In the mid-17th century, however, when the term “philosophy of religion” first appears in English (coined by Ralph Cudworth), there emerged a tradition of practicing philosophy in which philosophical reflection on religion and religious practices and beliefs was seen to be of primary interest.  It is from the school of thought known as Cambridge Platonism (which included Cudworth, Henry More, John Smith, and others) that we find the first sustained philosophy done in the English language with the coining of terms that are very much with us today, such as “theism,” “consciousness,” and various terms for naturalism, materialism and their counterparts.  What the Cambridge Platonists focused upon in the 17th century is still very much a part of the current practice of philosophy of religion in the modern university.  They were concerned with the following six areas which have a recognizable role in the practice of philosophy of religion today.

The evidence for and against theism and alternative non-theistic concepts of God.  The Cambridge Platonists were all Christian theists, but they were very much energized by the challenges of modern science, atheism and secular naturalism, and religious diversity.  They were the first philosophers in English to advance versions of the ontological, cosmological, teleological and moral theistic arguments, along with a theistic argument from religious experience.  They also were the first in English to develop a theistic argument from consciousness: they contended that the emergence and existence of consciousness was more plausible given theism than naturalism.

Faith and Reason: They contended that religious faith should be guided by evidence and defended a robust natural and revealed theology.

To what extent does the modern science of Galileo, Newton, et. al., threaten our recognition of the reality of consciousness? Putting it another way, they were skeptical about what today we would call non-reductive materialism, and insisted on the reality and irreducibility of consciousness.  As suggested above, they thought this was pivotal to a Christian, but even more broadly, theistic concept of the cosmos.

Freedom and determinism: They were very much alive to the importance of libertarian freedom as a condition for moral (and theological) responsibility.  Although he is rarely acknowledged, Ralph Cudworth was the first philosopher in English to make a powerful case for libertarian free will.

Diversity and tolerance: The Cambridge Platonists pre-date Locke’s early work on tolerance.  They articulated and defended tolerance during the English Civil Wars.

Religious ethics: The Cambridge Platonists were wary of appealing to God’s power or omnipotence as a way to adjudicate ethical disputes.  They were very much on Socrates and Plato’s side in the Euthyphro: they believed that God loves and commands what is good and just, because it is good and just, rather than claiming that some act becomes good and just solely on the grounds that it is commanded by an omnipotent power.

There are areas in contemporary philosophy of religion which go beyond these six matters, both in terms of depth and scope.  So, today, there is more detail in each of these areas, extensive work on anti-realism, on the worldview of non-Christian religions—which the Cambridge Platonists were concerned with but they lacked the detailed knowledge of, say, Buddhism, to do extensive philosophy of Buddhism—and so on.  Contemporary feminists have been and should be interested in Anne Conway (1630-1679), More’s student and an important critic of More, Leibniz, and Descartes.  The Cambridge Platonists had an important role in providing grounds in philosophical theology for opposing racism.

In summary, the history of philosophy of religion in universities in the modern era (since the emergence of modern science) have been robustly shaped by the pioneers of philosophy of religion, the Cambridge Platonists.  This is a tradition that is alive today and explicitly endorsed by Douglas Hedley, Sarah Hutton, and a host of others.  I offer an overview of the history of philosophy of religion which features the Cambridge Platonists in the book Evidence and Faith: Philosophy and Religion since the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge University Press) and offer a modern introduction to Cambridge Platonism for general, university-educated readers in The Golden Cord: A Short Book on the Sacred and Secular (University of Notre Dame Press).

Peter Jonkers on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

peter jonkersPeter Jonkers is full professor of philosophy at Tilburg University (School of Catholic Theology) in the Netherlands. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In his foreword to a recent book on the revitalization of religious culture through university education the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes: “In a university world where what counts as knowing, what counts as sustainable truth claims and, ultimately, what counts as ‘humanistic’ are all issues surrounded by some confusion at the moment, theology’s contribution to the conversation is not trivial. The humanities sorely need defences against functionalist barbarity – and so, for that matter, do most of the sciences. And what happens to these questions in the university is significant for what happens to them in our culture overall. Academic questions are not – as it were – purely academic questions” (cfr. O. Crisp, G. D’Costa, M. Davis, P. Hampson (eds.), Theology and Philosophy. Faith and Reason. London: Bloomsbury, 2011, viii). What Williams writes here about the role of theology in the university also applies to philosophy of religion, and perhaps even in a more appropriate sense. Since (Christian) religion is about the truth, it has to be engaged with all the ways in which human beings in general talk about truth and believe they discover and cope with it. Philosophy of religion is well apposite to examine religious truth claims and compare them with those in other fields of research and human culture in general.

What characterizes the public and academic debate is a growing mismatch between religious truths and what counts as sustainable truth claims in the university and society at large. This mismatch also concerns theological truth claims, since theology is a theoretical reflection on the truths of religion. The predominant truth-paradigm in the university world is a scientific, objectivistic and functionalistic one, and almost all researchers at universities have to fulfill the requirements set by this paradigm in order to count as respected academics. All other expressions of the human mind, however reflective and well-argued they may be, are typically reduced to private opinions and utterances of subjective taste. Religion and theology somehow seem to be stuck in this bifurcation: they obviously do not want to follow the paradigm of scientific truth, but nevertheless refuse to be disqualified as a body of contingent opinions. What makes things worse is that the truth-claims of religion concern a reality that is beyond ordinary empirical observation, and this ‘surreal’ character reflects negatively on theology. Consequently, not only have religious truths lost a great deal of their societal plausibility, but theology too is forced into a defensive position, and is hardly accepted as a respected discussion partner in the university debate. Nowadays, many academics consider religion and theology as equally non-cognitive, and even dispute the latter’s place in the academia.

Although this condition of religion and theology is quite unfavorable, but, at the same time, unlikely to change soon, it creates a good opportunity for philosophy of religion to show what it can offer to the modern university. First of all, philosophy of religion has an essential role in clarifying the current confusion about what counts as knowing, as truth-claims, and as humanistic. Unlike theology, its object of study is not primarily God and how he has revealed himself through Scripture, the history of humankind and nature, but rather religion as an empirical reality. This puts philosophy of religion on a par with other disciplines in the modern university, and makes it more acceptable as a discussion partner. But unlike most other disciplines at the university, including many other philosophical sub-disciplines, philosophy of religion has a close connection with the specific kind of rationality and truth that is prevalent in religion, but differs substantially from what counts as sustainable truth claims in ordinary fields of research at the university. To be more precise, religious truth is not so much a theoretical or doctrinal kind of truth, but an existential one: religions claim to offer humans a truthful orientation in their lives that will enable them to lead a fulfilled life. Hence, religious truth can only be discovered through a reflection that is closely connected to a religious way of life. Through its sensitivity to the atypical, but also intriguing, character of religious truth as existential, philosophy of religion has something vital to offer to the modern university: by pointing to the existential character of religious truth, philosophy of religion can deconstruct the problematic univocity that dominates the university discussions about what counts as sustainable truth claims, thus offering a clarification of the current confusion.

Secondly, and in connection with the previous point, by interpreting religious truth as existential, philosophy of religion can contribute in putting up a defensive wall against the ‘functionalistic barbarity’ that has such devastating effects on the place of the humanities in the university. Such an approach of the humanities has led to reducing the humanities to what is economically useful, while disregarding the role of humanities as a study of the expressions of human culture for its own sake. As Rowan Williams points out, the barbarity of functionalism is not confined to the university, but spreads to human culture overall. Functionalism deprives human life and culture of their substance, and interprets them as instrumental for something else. Among many other social philosophers, Jürgen Habermas has warned against the dangerous effects of such a colonization of the life world. Religion has always resisted a functionalist reductionism, since it is essentially about the very substance of human life and the world. Against this background, it is no wonder that Habermas, especially in his more recent work, draws attention to religion as a safeguard of substantial values that tend to be forgotten in our functionalistic age. They are not only relevant for believing people, but also for secular ones. The task of philosophy of religion, not only in the university, but even more importantly in society as a whole, is to ‘translate’ these substantial religious values and truth claims into the language of reason, which can be universally understood.

Jack Mulder on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

JackMulderJack Mulder is Professor of Philosophy at Hope College. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?


Or at least, that is what I fear that philosophy of religion offers to the modern university when it is finished cruising down its current course.  Archbishop Fulton Sheen once wrote that “A bigoted man is one who refuses to accept a reason for anything; a broad-minded man is one who will accept anything for a reason.”  Now philosophers of religion, as with all philosophers and all rational people, should oppose bigotry.  The reason for that, I think, is that bigoted people refuse to accept the terms of rational discourse.  They persist in their views in the face of overwhelming reasons to deny them.  In particular, bigoted people persist in the face of reasons so overwhelming that the only way for them to continue holding their views is to opt out of the project of rational discourse entirely.  Consider racism.  Modern biological anthropology has now provided evidence so compelling for the misapplication of the term “race” to anything substantially biological (in that there are no biological markers that all members of one race have and that all people who are not members of that race lack) that one would have to be a bigot to hold to any intrinsic reasons for the superiority of one race over another.  That doesn’t mean that the term “race” has not changed over the years (as has the term “atom,” to take an example from Paul C. Taylor) into something strategically important to hold on to for political and cultural purposes such as fighting the injustice of past and continuing racism, but it does mean that those who hold racist views have no rational leg on which to stand.

“Broad-minded” people, to use Sheen’s language, might seem to be quite the opposite of bigoted people, but it turns out that the two groups share some important characteristics.  On the one hand, broad-minded people (in this very particular usage I am taking from Sheen), on the face of it, accept all comers.  On the other hand, it becomes clear soon enough that it is not the project of rational discourse to which they are welcomed.  Philosophy of religion, and academic discourse more generally, should welcome all opinions that are willing to take up the burden of offering reasons (in a fairly broad sense), accessible in principle to anyone.  That does not mean that those who have a religious experience incapable of being fully described in rational terms, such as St. Teresa of Avila, are beyond the pale.  It merely means that such people must be willing to seek out reasons for why, epistemically, religious experiences could be veridical, should they wish to engage in academic discussion.  But this also means that conversations at a university should be academic in nature, and that if you are unwilling to articulate your views in a rational way, then you have opted out of the project of rational discourse.  A corollary is also true: if someone represents her views as rational, her views should not be represented as merely sentimental or emotive.  Certain forms of dialogue have a way of construing the enterprise as merely one of encounter.  But philosophical discussion must keep all of those charitable dispositions in place and do still more.  Personally, I believe that there is better evidence for God’s existence than for God’s nonexistence.  I believe the Christian view of the afterlife can be defended against critics.  I even believe that there are good, philosophically grounded, reasons for why people who are already Christians should believe the Catholic dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  While I sometimes articulate these views as part of my Catholic faith, I am willing to accept the burden of offering a rational picture for why I believe these things.  (Philosophy of religion is not always done from a religious perspective, but it can be done that way.)  Certainly, I could be wrong, but these are not merely feelings.  They entail disagreements with others who also accept the burden of rational discourse.  These should be charitable disagreements, to be sure, but our reasons must be scrutinized even if that forces us to change.

My sense is that the “modern university” has a tendency to do one of two things in regard to religion as it cruises down its current treacherous path.  In the one case, it ignores the convictions of religious people who are willing to enter the project of rational discourse, perhaps because of its own hegemonic sense of what constitutes reason.  Or sometimes it might welcome certain religious or moral views only insofar as they will admit to being treated as elements of a “broad-minded” sampler of views that are welcomed less as serious rational partners in the discourse of the university and more as superstitious and/or cultural holdouts for people, especially students, who haven’t yet fully embraced “reason” in its currently fashionable garb.

Philosophy of religion is an area of study and research that can, and should, invite all participants to the project of rational discourse as it concerns the religious life, disinviting only those who are unwilling to submit their religious views to rational scrutiny (of a broad sort).  For the unexamined religious, or secular, life is not worth living.

Graham Oppy on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

graham_oppy-profile1Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy and Head of the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies (SOPHIS) at Monash University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy is the discipline that addresses questions for which we do not know how to produce—and perhaps cannot even imagine how to produce—consensus answers among experts using methods more or less universally agreed by experts. In any other discipline, there are borderline questions for which we do not know how to produce—and perhaps cannot even imagine how to produce—consensus answers among experts using methods more or less universally agreed by experts; these questions belong to the philosophy of that discipline. However, there are also questions that are proper to the central sub-disciplines of philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, aesthetics, and so forth: we do not know how to produce—and perhaps cannot even imagine how to produce—consensus answers to these questions among experts using methods more or less universally agreed by experts.

Given what philosophy is, it is clear that we—collectively—want some among us to be philosophers. Pretty much every discipline starts out as philosophy; many people who work in other disciplines run into questions that currently belong to the philosophy of that discipline; and everyone comes up against questions—including, in particular, normative questions—that remain squarely and stubbornly philosophical. While progress is slow, there continue to be new disciplines branching off from philosophy; and philosophers—people who spend their time addressing philosophical questions—play an important role in that process. What philosophy offers to ‘the modern university’ is something that ‘the modern university’ should not—and perhaps even cannot—be without, whether or not ‘the modern university’ recognises this to be the case.

The main thing that religion brings to ‘the modern university’ is trouble. Religion—like sex, politics, and other ‘markers of identity’—creates circumstances that require negotiation of difference. For ‘the modern university’, this negotiation is often a very messy juggling act. On the one hand, ‘the modern university’ values freedom of speech, including free and open discussion of contested beliefs and values. But, on the other hand, ‘the modern university’ also values respect for the diverse worldviews represented among its constituents, even when that ‘respect’ allegedly requires not entering into free and open discussion of contested beliefs and values.

Philosophy of religion focuses the attention of ‘the modern university’ on the particular problem that arises in connection with contested religious beliefs and values. Philosophy of religion can be a domain in which there is—and in which there is expected to be—genuinely free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values. In that domain, it can be that there are no contested religious beliefs and values that are on the conversational scoreboard; it can be that beliefs and values only get on to the conversational scoreboard if they are agreed by all participants in the conversation. Moreover, it can be that, in that domain, there are no religious beliefs and values that are placed off limits: it can be that all religious beliefs and values are entitled to—and required to be subject to—consideration in philosophy of religion. Whatever may be the case elsewhere in ‘the modern university’, it can be that, in philosophy of religion respect demands entering into free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values.

Needless to say, it need not be that case that ‘the modern university’ allows philosophy of religion to be a domain in which there is—and in which there is expected to be—genuinely free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values. However, given that the primary subject matter of philosophy of religion is questions about religion for which we do not know how to produce—and perhaps cannot even imagine how to produce—consensus answers among experts using methods more or less universally agreed by experts, there is a clear sense in which it ought to be the case that ‘the modern university’ allows philosophy of religion to be a domain in which there is—and in which there is expected to be—genuinely free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values. Even if we allow that there are circumstances—times and places—in which it is not appropriate to try to pursue free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values—i.e. even if we allow that, sometimes, respect for those with worldviews very different from our own requires us to abstain from trying to pursue free and open discussion of those worldviews with their adherents—we should nonetheless insist that there must be places such as classrooms for philosophy of religion whose essential purpose is to facilitate the pursuit of free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values. For, while we may hold out very little hope that discussion in the philosophy of religion classroom will lead to convergence of expert opinion on contested religious beliefs and values, we can certainly expect that free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values in circumstances in which nothing short of universal consensus permits claims to be entered onto the conversational scoreboard will promote improved mutual expert understanding of those contested religious beliefs and values.

The account that I have given of what philosophy of religion offers to ‘the modern university’ is premised on two assumptions. The first, somewhat sceptical, assumption is that there is no prospect of convergence of expert opinion with respect to currently contested religious beliefs and values. The second, somewhat optimistic, assumption is that we will all benefit from improved expert understanding of currently contested religious beliefs and values. Much of what passes for philosophy of religion in ‘the modern university’ is taught by people who accept neither of these assumptions. In my opinion, this fact plays a significant role in explaining why philosophy of religion is currently so much less than it could be.

Stanley Tweyman on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

stweyman-cStanley Tweyman is University Professor of Humanities and Philosophy at York University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

There is a sense in which the Philosophy of Religion is aligned with other areas of philosophy, in that they all try to provide answers to questions about the subject matter of that area of inquiry. So, for example, G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica raises the question, “What is good?”, and Moore seeks to provide an answer to this (and other) questions. Now, generally speaking, the Philosophy of Religion proceeds in a similar manner: whether we are interested in proofs for the existence of God; criticisms of proofs for the existence of God; the way in which the topic of God contributes—or does not contribute—to certain philosophies; the epistemic significance of claims of revelation and the miraculous; all of these topics, and many more, are treated within the realm of the philosophy of religion, and are the focus of courses and research in the modern university. In one sense, then, an answer to the question ‘What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university’ can be put in this (unexciting) way: The philosophy of religion offers the modern university whatever is done in the philosophy of religion.

We can go further (again, in an unexciting way) to compare the philosophy of religion to other areas of inquiry outside philosophy. In an obvious sense, Philosophy of Religion deals with its subject matter, namely God, in a manner which is similar to the manner in which other areas of learning proceed with their respective subject matter. Where they differ is in the subject matter connected to each field or discipline: astronomy studies celestial bodies, medicine studies the human body, while religion studies what can be known about God.

But this is hardly an adequate answer to our question. I regard the question of this blog to be a meta-question in the area of the philosophy of religion: here I am not doing the philosophy of religion; rather, I am trying to understand what contribution the philosophy of religion makes, or better, can make, to the modern university. Now, in fact, I want to narrow this inquiry even further than indicated above, by asking, what is it that only the philosophy of religion can offer to the modern university? I want to know what is unique in the philosophy of religion- what the philosophy of religion does not share with any other area of inquiry. I believe that we can provide an answer to this question.

It seems to me that to answer this question we need to grasp the point at which the philosophy of religion parts company with all other areas of inquiry. And that point is reached when we attempt to understand God, not through argument, but through contemplation and meditation. The philosopher who I believe articulates this point best is Rene Descartes, who in the last paragraph of the third meditation (after he has established that God exists as Descartes’ creator and that God is not a deceiver) writes: “…[I]t seems to me right to pause for a while in order to contemplate God Himself, to ponder at leisure His marvellous attributes, to consider, and admire, and adore, the beauty of this light so resplendent, at least as far as the strength of my mind, which is in some measure dazzled by the sight, will allow me to do so. For just as faith teaches us that the supreme felicity of the other life consists only in this contemplation of Divine Majesty, so we continue to learn by experience that a similar meditation…causes us to enjoy the greatest satisfaction of which we are capable in this life.” [i]

First, not everyone agrees that God exists, and even among those who do hold a belief in God’s existence, not all would agree that we are in possession of an idea of God (innate or otherwise) upon which we can reflect or meditate. Now, those who do not believe that God exists are outside the scope of this blog (except in the sense I discuss toward the end of this paragraph), although they can continue to study proofs of God’s existence and nature, and continue to formulate criticisms to support their position. Those who believe that God exists but deny that they possess a Cartesian or other-type idea of God upon which to meditate have three options: (1) either try to understand God through arguments, or (2) through alleged religious experiences (their own, or those of others), or (3) through the study of nature. On this third way, the most articulate statement I have found is one put forth by Albert Einstein in 1930 at the end of his work, “What I Believe”: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.” I said at the beginning of this paragraph that non-believers are outside the scope of this blog, but, in fact, this may not be so. For, following the point made by Einstein, all those interested in art and science may be able to achieve the sense of religiousness of which Einstein speaks.

In this blog, I have tried to show that the philosophy of religion has an important contribution to make to the modern university in pointing us to ways to comprehend, however imperfectly, an appreciation of the divine.

[i] Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, edited and with an Introduction by Stanley Tweyman, first published in 1993 by Routledge, London and New York, and in 2002 by Caravan Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan, by arrangement with Routledge.


Mark Gardiner on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

mark gardinerMark Gardiner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Mount Royal University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In light of the fact that the humanities are under siege in so many universities around the world, I take the invited blog question to really be that of asking philosophy of religion (PofR) to justify its place in the modern university.

To begin, my defence is predicated upon ‘philosophy of religion’ (PofR) being understood in much broader ways than it has traditionally been. The companion Blog series–“What is Philosophy of Religion?” (http://philosophyofreligion.org/?page_id=16960)–provides excellent discussion on what PofR is, might be, or should be. Many entries illustrate and critique ‘traditional’ PofR’s narrow emphasis on such things as the existence of (a particular type of) God, the truth/rationality of religious belief, metaphysical questions about freedom, miracles, and life after death. PofR must wrestle with the myriad religions as concretely practiced around the globe just as much as, if not more than, ‘religion’ as a reified abstract entity historically tied to abstract monotheism. Of this I will offer no further elaboration or justification, other than to note that my defence of the value of PofR in the modern university is a defence of this sort of ‘revised’ or ‘reformed’ PofR.

The other noun phrase in the Blog question–‘the modern university’–invites some reflection as well. The definite article is, of course, misleading, for there is no single thing which constitutes ‘the’ modern university. The adjective ‘modern’ signals that what are called universities have changed over time with the implication that it is that change which underwrites the need for PofR to justify itself. I doubt that the question ‘What does Philosophy of Religion have to offer the medieval university?’ could seriously have been raised, given that ‘philosophy of religion’ was then tantamount to Christian theology. Consider an analogous question: “What does the study of business have to offer the modern university?” It cannot now be raised seriously, but such absurdity is not a priori. It would have been (and likely was) a quite serious question in the past. Business did not enter the academy as a result of a sudden recognition that its subject matters did, in fact, fall under the type of knowledge whose pursuit universities were designed to foster. Rather, its body of knowledge had advanced to such a degree (pun intended) that its mastery required the prolonged multi-year training from those who were both educators and researchers; in other words, only a university style system could properly enable (and regulate) entrance to and mastery of it. But this couldn’t have been enough; business schools could have remained at the level of specialized ‘technical’ institutions. What more was needed was a ‘recognition’ that business interests itself in a set of generalized, or more ‘universal’, social values of precisely the type that the university was designed to enable. In other words, what should be included and what excluded from ‘the university’ is a function of what the society which supports and maintains it at any given time deems to be of sufficient general and social value. Some values have seemed to transcend of the particularities of culture, such as the speaking, writing, and reasoning well, and this perhaps explains why at least the trivium has had a history indistinguishable from ‘the university’ itself (at least prior to this century). Other values are more transitory. Medieval Europe’s obsession with ‘spiritual’ well-being is what would have made the blog question rhetorical in the 14th century. As it became possible to question the very existence of such a thing, let alone its value, philosophy of religion aka theology no longer had a built-in justification in relation to ‘the university’. To considerable extent, economic (i.e. material) well-being has replaced ‘spiritual’ well-being as the predominant social value, and it is this change which allowed business to enter. Although it now seems analytic to many that ‘economic well-being’ is the sine qua non of ‘the modern university’, it is important to realize that it has not always been seen so, nor should we expect it to always be so. If, or when, that value recedes, business may be called upon to show what it has to offer the ‘modern’ university.

PofR, then, can seek to justify itself in two distinct ways. First, it can try to show that it does align with ‘economic well-being’. Many, including some writing entries in this blog, do just that. Exposure to the humanities in general (and PofR by implication) have been amply demonstrated to increase the prospects of meaningful and well paid employment. Especially in a world of increasingly unstable and changing markets, the generalized skills of problem solving, complex reasoning, clear articulation, and abstract thought strongly contribute to the predominant value of economic well-being. The ability to spot and critique often unnoticed assumptions is a decided plus especially in a world tending towards globalization in which an ever increasing number of diverse cultural forms, beliefs, and practices participate.

But what interests me more is the second sort of justification: PofR can critique the very values underwriting ‘the modern university’, perhaps arguing that they are not worth preserving, at least not in the manner in which universities now operate. That would be the negative first step in the defence; the positive second step would be to argue for a set of values which the modern university properly ought to enable, protect, and advance, and show that PofR aligns strongly with them. The reflexivity is not lost on me; philosophy in general constitutes just the sort of body of knowledge and methodology which is equipped to explore, understand, explain, and critique the relationship between norms and practices, oughts and ises. If the very nature of the university is to socially operationalize advancement of a set of shared values requiring the sort of training and scholarly research indicative of that institution, then the very discipline which is well (best?) suited to fully understand, articulate, and explain that mandate ipso facto has much to offer it. Philosophy, I put it, ought always have an home in the university.

PofR, as a branch of philosophy, shares in its general justification, but it also deserves a more focused one. First, I argue that more philosophical attention to religion and religious phenomena makes for better philosophy, particularly at its most fundamental level at which its bedrock concepts are to be found: truth, meaning, reason, explanation. These bedrock concepts are so thoroughly intertwined that it is impossible to separate them in any practical way. They all coalesce, I argue—following a ‘interpretationalist’ line in the philosophy of language associated with such philosophers as Donald Davidson and Robert Brandom—in the ways in which we seek to understand human language and explain human behaviour. Religious phenomena—language and behavior—is incredibly rich and diverse; it serves as the most important ‘acid test’ for theories of meaning: any adequate philosophy must accommodate religion. An approach to philosophy which takes semantic constraints as bedrock, and which is informed by the nuances and complexities of real and lived religious phenomena, is a better philosophy. It is a philosophy better suited to explore, unravel, and critique the myriad hidden assumptions, competing values, and the social placement that is driving ‘the modern university’ in the early 21st century. It is the right type of philosophy to carry on the self-reflection and critique that is critical to the function and survival of the academy, but which is all too often lost sight of.

Patricia Johnson on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Johnson_PatriciaPatricia Johnson is Professor Emerita and Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Dayton. We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The question posed calls for some reflection on what it means to offer.  The term contains religious connotations, with historical usages that relate to both sacrifice and worship.  But it is also used in a more general sense of presenting something for acceptance, to be ready or willing to do something if there is acceptance on the part of the receiving person or group.  As philosophers of religion, the question asks us to consider what we can put forward to our universities as something important that we are willing to do.

We live in a time of conflict that is heightened by religious differences.  For example, in the United States, Muslim communities are often treated with suspicion. Communities refuse to allow them burial grounds. In India, the eating of beef by members of religious groups such as Muslims and Christians has resulted in violent response from Hindu religious and political groups.  The list of examples could take all of the space allotted here. What we know is, we live in a time that calls for dialogue in order to reduce violence that is caused, at least in part, by religious exclusivism and intolerance.

Those engaged in inter-religious dialogue have suggested that this dialogue can take place at many levels.  That is, there are many types of dialogue. People simply living together can come to respect the religious practices of others because they respect other individuals.  People from different religious traditions working on a common project can learn about each other’s traditions while focused on something that both hold as a common good.  People can share in religious practices of their own traditions and those of others. Finally, theological discussions, or discussions about fundamental claims that arise from the religious experiences of different traditions can be explored.  This may require intra-religious dialogue where individuals and groups question themselves and ask themselves to be open to a range of what may be understood as religious experiences.

Philosophy has the most to contribute to these last two types of dialogue.  Before exploring this in a bit more detail, I want to suggest that in the university, philosophy needs to work with other disciplines in order to contribute to inter-religious dialogue.  Students and faculty need the experiences of participating in a range of religious practices.  They need to know about history and the roles that religions have played over time in the development and destruction of human communities and human well-being. They need to read the literature that is part of various religious traditions.  So, philosophy needs to offer to work with other disciplines to develop robust and informed dialogue.  This offering is a willingness to learn from others.

But philosophy also can make significant contributions to inter-religious dialogue.  Philosophy can model for students and others in the universities how to discuss these difficult issues in a context of openness that seeks truth and common good. Philosophy has a long tradition of developing dialogue and so brings an understanding of what dialogue can be and how to go about engaging in productive dialogue.  Philosophy also has a long tradition of exploring meaning both in practices and in our use of language.

Philosophical hermeneutics, as developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer, understands philosophy as authentic conversation.  Gadamer maintains that all philosophy must be based in fundamental experiences of human existence and must be carried out calling on the conceptual and intuitive powers of the languages in which we live.  Influenced heavily by Plato, Gadamer sees dialogue, or conversation, as an art which shows us our own ignorance and so serves as an antidote to illusions of superiority that we may have.  The art of dialogue requires that we ask questions together that are important for understanding our human experiences and that enable us to take directions where we are open to being changed.  Gadamer maintains that such conversations enable communities and individuals to live more justly.  Together, in conversation, we can determine ways to live well together.  Such conversations require attentiveness to the words of others and require each participant to listen and to remember the importance of quiet words.  These words seek to advance the conversation rather than claim victory over another.

In addition to modeling dialogue as authentic conversation, philosophy can bring rich traditions of thinking about the meaning of language used to give expression to religious experience.  Western philosophy is not alone in probing questions of meaning. Philosophy of religion needs to engage in dialogue across the philosophical traditions that arise in the context of a wide range of religions.  In order to do this, philosophy departments at our universities need to develop ways of engaging scholars from these diverse religious backgrounds.  This can, and should, be done through hiring processes.  But it can also be done through providing opportunities for scholarly exchanges that make time for opportunities to allow for quiet conversations.

Finally, philosophy can make important contributions to intra-religious dialogue both on the individual and institutional levels.  At the institutional level, these contributions are probably best carried out at institutions that still retain religious affiliation.  Here philosophy can ask more probing and difficult questions.  How does the institution understand the implications of the practices and beliefs of the tradition to which it ascribes?  What are the moral implications for the institution of its grounding in such religious traditions?  At the individual level, philosophy can provide students with the opportunity to explore religious commitment which they hold or reject.  It can enable students to explore their own religious identities without the pressure of needing to ascribe to particular practices or beliefs.

Philosophy of religion can offer to learn from other disciplines, to advance dialogues across religious traditions, and to facilitate individual and communal understanding of religious experiences and practices.  This may, or may not, result in a more unified understanding of religious experience such as John Hick proposed.  This seems important work for the modern university.  Whether or not our universities will accept the offer remains to be determined.

Jennifer Hockenbery on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

profile_hockenbery-jenniferJennifer Hockenbery is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Mary University. We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In order to advocate for philosophy of religion at a modern university, one must first decipher what is the vocation of the modern university. While different institutions have different areas of specialization and different mission statements, one common goal is that a university is a community that centers itself on the investigation of common questions of human experience: What is Happiness? What is Virtue? What are the possibilities for human knowledge? How can we best form a social community that benefits individuals? Such questions certainly pertain to the empirical and social sciences, the arts, and professional degree programs, but the discipline that continually reminds all the other disciplines of the central questions is philosophy: the nagging mother of all disciplines. As such philosophical questioning and thinking must be integrated into every division and department in a University.

The philosophy of religion, as a sub-discipline of philosophy, serves its role in the university by asking questions about religious experiences. Unlike anthropology, philosophy of religion does not ask for a description of religious practices but asks philosophical questions about the metaphysics, the axiology, and the ethics of specific religions. While philosophy of religion began in the European Enlightenment as a method of using philosophy to prove or disprove certain philosophical claims, the discipline is more broadly construed in contemporary academia. For example, a philosopher of religion might discuss the truth value of a specific religious claim by using logic and/or empiricism. But a philosopher of religion might also simply question what a specific religious faith declares ontologically or axiologically—what a specific faith suggests is most real or has most value. A philosopher of religion might also consider the topic of religion generally asking questions about the difference between faith and reason, discussing the role of religious experience in psychological well-being, and considering the role of gender as part of religious experience. Finally, a philosopher of religion might consider how a religion has influenced philosophical thinking throughout history.

In my own work I see myself doing three types of philosophy of religion. First, I am interested in the philosophical systems inherent in Christian thought. I teach classes and write articles on Christian Philosophy in which I explore what Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Hildegard of Bingen, Edith Stein and other Christians said philosophically about the role of philosophy, reason, and faith in pursuing Truth as well as what they said about the nature of the self and the role of the mind and body in the individual. Second, I am interested in the question of religion and faith generally as a valid or invalid way of truth seeking. In my course, Philosophy of Religion: Reason and Faith, students read Hume, Kierkegaard, Freud, James, Nietzsche, Daly, and Beauvoir in order to think deeply about the role of faith in science, ethics, psychology, and gender roles. Third, I am interested in the way the religions of different philosophers influenced their writing, even and especially their secular writing. For example, discussing Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, and Nietzsche’s Lutheran roots opens up important ways of understanding these thinkers insights. Understanding Judith Butler’s Judaism and Simone de Beauvoir and Donna Haraway’s Catholicism deepens a reader’s understanding of these thinker’s place in intellectual history.

As the contemporary academy continues to seek a deeper understanding of central human questions, the role of philosophy and philosophy of religion continues to be central. Philosophers of religion require that we apply philosophical thinking in the study of religion and also that we consider the ways religious commitments might properly limit philosophical thinking. As such philosophers must critically examine their own disciplines as much as they examine others.

Morgan Luck on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Morgan Luck is Professor of Philosophy at Charles Sturt University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Analytical philosophy offers, in general, a way to think clearly about lots of stuff. So, analytical philosophy of religion offers, in general, a way to think clearly about lots of religious stuff. We would not want to restrict this general offer if made to the modern university. So, analytical philosophy of religion offers the modern university a way to think clearly about lots of religious stuff. If the value this offer needs to be made more apparent to the modern university, this may say more about the modern university than it does about analytical philosophy of religion.